By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

A keeper? Zookeeper is anything but.

It’s a flimsy family film in which Kevin James talks to the animals.  But not as much as they talk to him.

He’s the protagonist of this talking-critter comedy, an indifferently made gimmickfest that wants to be childlike but is only childish, with shoddy production values and a dismissive attitude about its audience, however young they might be.

Some talking-animal movies charm (Babe, Dr. Dolittle, Stuart Little, Charlotte’s Web) while others soil the rug (Cats & Dogs, Alvin and the Chipmunks, The Shaggy Dog, Beverly Hills Chihuahua).

1c2bd Movie Review: ZookeeperZookeeper fits squarely in the latter category.

Kevin James stars as the title character, Griffin Keyes, the overweight and lonely caretaker who decides to vacate his comfort zone and leave his job at the (real) Franklin Park Zoo in Boston to try to go out there and get a social life.

That’s when the animals that he’s always been so responsible for and comfortable with give him the surprise of his life by breaking their code of silence and revealing — to him only — that they can indeed talk.

And it turns out that they have some suggestions, straight from the animal kingdom, for how Griffin might shore up his ability to participate successfully in mating rituals.

Rosario Dawson co-stars as the fetching veterinarian who works at the zoo, and Leslie Bibb is the woman whom Griffin yearns for, but who rejected his proposal of marriage several years ago at least partially because of her embarrasssment that he was a zookeeper.

The animals are voiced by, among others, the likes of Adam Sandler (monkey), Sylvester Stallone (lion), Cher (lioness), Nick Nolte (gorilla), Jon Favreau and Faizon Love (bears), Maya Rudolph (giraffe), and Judd Apatow (elephant) in a comedy that registers as a companion piece to A Night at the Museum.  And whereas quality is concerned, this “A Night at the Zoo” is similarly regrettable.

James co-produced, along with Sandler (with whom James co-starred in 2007’s I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry) and apparently there was no one around to remind them that they were getting nowhere near delivering the film’s central illusion with any kind of conviction.  And that constitutes only a small portion of the reason why sitting through their movie is such a joyless, unpleasant experience.

James, best known for his TV sitcom “The King of Queens,” launched his career as a movie star by playing a lovable loser and displaying a real penchant for physical comedy two years ago in Paul Blart: Mall Cop.  With this outing, he takes a giant step backward.

Director Frank Coraci (Click, The Waterboy, The Wedding Singer, Around the World in 80 Days), working from a strained script by the screenwriting committee of James himself, Nick Bakay, Rock Reuben, Jay Scherick, and David Ronn (contributor overload alert!), kicks things off awkwardly, concentrates on generating easy laughs from undiscriminating youngsters, and allows the film to get worse as it proceeds, letting everything revolve around the embarrassingly obvious product placement and climaxing in a turn of events and a series of message-carrying speeches that are insincere in the extreme.

By a conservative estimate — and even allowing for children’s love of slapstick involving members of the animal kingdom — the film is about one-third as charming as it thinks it is.  At most.

Somehow, even the mismanaged mix of real and digital critters fails to work any kind of magic.  And putting an obvious guy in a gorilla suit in such a prominent position in the narrative is to condescend even to young children.

So we’ll tame 1½ stars out of 4 for the lazy, grating, cynically undisciplined, and insufferable Zookeeper.  Kids of all ages deserve better.

More Bill Wine movie reviews